Tag: feral cats

Keeping Cats From Killing Local Wildlife May Be Easier Than We Think

For the past two decades, a handful of birders and “conservationists” have claimed cats kill as many as 3.7 billion birds and 22.3 billion small animals every year in the US alone.

Their claims, repeatedly credulously in the press, have been catastrophic to cats: Hyperbolic headlines have labeled them “stone cold serial killers,” “God’s perfect little killing machines,” and posed questions like “Is your cat a mass murderer?” The headlines, often running in otherwise respectable publications, envision brutal “solutions,” like this one in Scientific American: “Cats Are Ruthless Killers. Should They Be Killed?

Politicians, wildlife conservationists and birders read headlines like the examples above and come up with ruthless policies, like bounties offering $10 for cat scalps and $5 for kitten scalps, government employees stalking public parks with shotguns and literally gunning down strays, and an Australian program designed to kill millions of cats by air-dropping sausages laced with poison.

“They’ve got to taste good,” an Australian scientist who helped develop the sausage formula said. “They are the cat’s last meal.”

Now who’s the serial killer?

Sadly, few people have thought to question the studies that claim jaw-dropping numbers of birds and small mammals are slaughtered by cats every year.

How did the studies arrive at those numbers? Their formula hasn’t varied much from “study” to “study,” and more or less looks like this:

  • Assemble your data from old studies that have nothing to do with cats preying on wildlife, or hand out questionnaires to a handful of cat owners and ask them how many animals they think their free-roaming cats might kill.
  • Since you don’t know how many stray, feral and free-roaming cats exist in the US, invent an arbitrary number. Most of these “studies” put the number of cats anywhere between 25 and 125 million, but higher numbers are better because they make for more apocalyptic predictions and generate more credulous headlines.
  • Completely ignore the primary factors driving avian extinction in the world, which are human-caused: Habitat destruction, habitat defragmentation, wind turbines, pesticides, cars, high tension wires and windows, which are by far the biggest bird-killers.
  • Attribute all of the above to feral, stray and free-roaming cats.
  • Take your original “data” and, without making any adjustments for climate, regional variation, migration patterns, other predatory impacts — or anything else, really — simply extrapolate the total number of bird deaths by multiplying your small dataset by the total number of free-roaming cats in the US, which you invented back in Step 2.
  • Package the entire thing as a rigorous study by Serious Conservationists, write some apocalyptic press releases and hype up your claims in your abstracts, because you know the vast majority of web aggregators and overworked reporters will not have the time to take a deep dive into the text of your study.
  • Encourage activist groups and lawmakers to push for the mass culling of cats, based on your studies.

Please, don’t take my word for it. Read the text of any of the widely-cited studies that have been reported as gospel in the last 20 years. You’ll be astonished at what passes for rigorous scientific work, and how policies that determine the fates of millions of cats are largely shaped by these studies.

The D.C. Cat Count and the importance of a baseline

But there’s hope: A coalition of groups in Washington, D.C., spent more than three years methodically taking a “census” of that city’s cat population using a variety of methods.

They surveyed thousands of households within the city limits to find out how many cat owners allow their pets to roam free. They set up 1,530 trail cameras in wooded areas, ditches, alleys, alongside streams. The cameras are motion-activated and they produced more than five million images — including more than 1.2 million images of cats and more than four million images of local wildlife. The cameras captured photos of squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, possums, deer and even wild turkeys.

They assembled teams of dozens of volunteers to personally survey areas where cats are known to congregate. Then, when all the data was collected, they spent months sorting the results, carefully keeping tally, sorting duplicate sightings of individual cats and confirming data when necessary.

low angle view of cat on tree
Credit: Pixabay/Pexels

When all was said and done, after three years, $1.5 million and countless man-hours, the study determined there are some 200,000 cats living in Washington, D.C., and only about 3,000 of them are truly feral, meaning they’re not pets and not part of managed cat colonies.

The team — which brought together conservationists, bird lovers, cat lovers, shelter volunteers and others who would normally oppose each other on cat-related policies — also documented every step to provide a toolkit for other cities and local governments to conduct their own methodical head counts. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel to take D.C.’s admirable lead.

The leaders of the D.C. Cat Count went to all that trouble because they understood that without knowing exactly how many cats they’re dealing with, where they congregate and how they behave, any policies attempting to deal with their potential impact would be flawed and could end up doing more harm than good.

Making informed decisions about managing outdoor cats

Anyone who continues to cite the old, sloppy studies should be reminded, loudly and often, that they have led to years of failed policies, heartbreaking outcomes, enmity between cat lovers and birders, and widespread misunderstanding of how cats behave and the impact they have on wildlife.

Now the next phase begins: Dispensing with the hysteria and finding real, useful ways to minimize the predatory impact of cats on local wildlife populations.

One of the first follow-up studies to bear fruit comes, not coincidentally, from a research team in nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, and yields some surprising revelations about free-roaming cat behavior and impact.

The biggest takeaway: Because free-roaming cats almost always stick to small areas (spanning only 550 feet, or 170 meters), “cats were unlikely to prey on native wildlife, such as songbirds or small mammals, when they were farther than roughly 1,500 feet (500 meters) from a forested area, such as a park or wooded backyard. We also found that when cats were approximately 800 feet (250 meters) or farther from forest edges, they were more likely to prey on rats than on native wildlife.”

That’s it. In other words, small buffer zones are “the difference between a diet that consists exclusively of native species and one without any native prey,” the study’s authors wrote.

“Our findings suggest that focusing efforts on managing cat populations near forested areas may be a more effective conservation strategy than attempting to manage an entire city’s outdoor cat population,” wrote Daniel Herrera and Travis Gallo of George Mason University.

a cute cat looking up
Credit: Phan Vu00f5 Minh Ku1ef3/Pexels

In other words, minimizing the predatory impact of cats is likely a hyper-local affair, and not something that can be effectively managed on a one-size-fits-all city-wide or county-wide basis.

This is just a first step in the right direction, and follow-up studies will yield further insights that will hopefully lead to fine-tuning strategies in managing free-roaming cats.

We still feel keeping cats indoors — for their own safety, as well as the safety of other animals — is the right thing to do, and all the evidence supports that view.

But what these efforts have shown us is that there is a way forward, and it’s not the contentious, divisive and irresponsible work that has guided cat management policy for two decades. It’s not just possible, but necessary, for all sides to work together to find solutions.

Let’s hope more people realize that, and the old “studies” are relegated to the dustbin where they belong.

Pa. Politician Resigns After Running Over Stray Cats With His Truck

Neighbors who live on a quiet street in rural Pennsylvania were horrified when a man in a white pickup truck intentionally tried to run over stray cats last week, hitting at least one.

Now, thanks to one neighbor who captured part of the attack on video, they’ve identified the man at the wheel, and he’s a local politician.

Frank Pagani Jr. resigned from his seat on the municipal council of Galilee, a rural Pennsylvania town with a population of 379. Video shows Pagani Jr. speeding up and swerving to hit one of two cats who were in the road at the time. He was going so fast he blew through the stop sign at the end of the street.

The brazen politician then made a left turn and casually pulled into his own driveway on a side street.

William Bittner, who captured part of the Dec. 1 hit-and-run on video, said Pagani called him afterward, admitted what he’d done, and said he would resign his council seat.

“He thinks that’s the end of it,” said Bittner, who takes care of the cats along with other neighbors on the street. “You just can’t let an act like that go on without someone being charged.”

The Beaver County Humane Society said its humane officers were investigating the incident, but Pagani Jr. hadn’t been charged as of Dec. 6. Neighbors told the Beaver County Times that police officers were going door to door on Dec. 3 to speak to witnesses. Pagani has not returned calls from at least two local media outlets.

Pagani works with his father in their family business, Pagani and Son Trucking LLC, which contracts with the United States Postal Service to shuttle mail in bulk to and from a processing facility to individual post offices in the area. The company has had three USDOT violations in 2020 and 2021, records show.

As for the cats, their fate remains unknown. The video appears to show Pagani’s truck hitting or running over the tail of one cat, who immediately bolted along with the other cat who was in the street at the time. Those two cats took off with a larger group that was on the nearby sidewalk. The injured cat hasn’t been seen since.

“He could have hit the undercarriage of the front, he could have had his tail run over, he could have been bruised,” Bittner told KDKA, the local CBS affiliate. “We’ve been searching and searching and we can’t find him.”

”And when I feed him in the morning and night, he’s not showing up. So we don’t know whether [he] ran off to die or…” Bittner said, trailing off.

In a follow-up post on Facebook, Bittner explained that the strays are part of a managed TNR colony, with neighbors pitching in to help feed the cats and adopt out kittens. So far, 28 cats have been trapped and fixed.

People in the neighborhood believe Pagani was taking matters into his own hands, which follows a disturbing trend of vigilantism toward cats by people who either hate them or think they’re protecting local wildlife by killing cats.

“We don’t need his idea of animal control,” Bittner wrote.

The Cat Houses of Istanbul: ‘Everybody Accepts Cats Must Have Their Own Life Spaces In The City’

We’ve written quite a bit about Turkey and how it serves as a model for co-existence and fondness between humans and cats, as well as other animals.

In Turkey — and especially in ancient Istanbul, the most populous city in Europe — cats are fed, welcomed into homes and shops, and taken care of by the entire community. Pets are still a thing there, but Istanbul’s stray population is the best cared-for in the world. They have their own parks, they’re protected by the people, and they’re even given miniature shelters which famously dot the city of 15 million.

“The whimsical structures — more like miniature apartment buildings than single-kitty houses — can be found in parks, outside shops and cafes, abutting private homes, and on university campuses, providing shelter for the city’s estimated 125,000 strays,” Reason to Be Cheerful’s staff wrote.

Cat house Turkey
A custom-built wooden cat house in Turkey.

The practice of creating shelters for strays and ferals began in 2008, when a young architect named Didem Gokgoz would pass strays in Istanbul’s Mistik Park as she walked to and from work every day.

“Every day I passed the park and saw them looking for a place to get some warmth during the winter, and I felt desperate,” Gokgoz said.

At first she began making small shelters from recyclable materials, but the compact structures weren’t always tolerated in parks and other places where people felt they were an eyesore, so after meeting with the city’s mayor, Gokgoz engaged in an experiment: She built larger, more aesthetically acceptable permanent structures in the park, including one that looks like a large catio with a sloping, house-like roof, draped in greenery and nondescript among the park’s other features.

Mistik Park cat house
The Mistik Park cat houses are protected by a catio-like structure. Only volunteers can use the human-size door, while small cat-size openings allow felines access. Credit: Transitions.

The project was a success, and soon she found herself with requests to build more. But they aren’t just built and installed: Each cat house is run by about a dozen volunteers who keep track of the local cats, feed them, get them spayed/neutered and see to their other needs.

Almost 14 years later, cat houses have become a permanent fixture not only in Istanbul, but in other Turkish cities as well.

“It became something normal; individuals make requests for cat houses,” Gokgoz told the Turkish journalism site Transitions. “That was our main goal, and we’ve reached it. Today, everybody accepts that cats must have their own life spaces in the city.”

Istanbul cat houses
Credit: Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality

The Most Important Cat Study Ever Has Been Completed, And The Results Are In

The last decade has seen something of a renaissance in cat-related research, with insightful studies about feline behavior coming from researchers in the US and Japan.

On the other hand there’s been a glut of research into feline predatory impact and public policy, and the majority of those studies have been deeply flawed. They’re based on suspect data and tainted by the interests of people who are more interested in blaming cats for killing birds than they are in learning about the real impact of domestic felines on local wildlife.

Those studies have all taken extreme shortcuts — using data that was collected for entirely different studies, for example, or handing out questionnaires that at best lead to highly subjective and speculative “data” on how cats affect the environment.

Several widely-cited studies that put the blame on cats for the extirpation of bird species have relied on wild guesses about the cat population in the US, estimating there are between 20 million and 120 million free-roaming domestic cats in the country. If you’re wondering how scientists can offer meaningful conclusions about the impact of cats when even they admit they could be off by 100 million, you’re not alone.

No one had ever actually counted the number of cats in a location, much less come close to a real figure — until now.

When leaders in Washington, D.C., set out to tackle the feral cat problem in their city, they knew they couldn’t effectively deal with the problem unless they knew its scope. They turned to the University of Maryland for help, which led to the D.C. Cat Count, a three-year undertaking to get an accurate census with the help of interested groups like the Humane Society and the Smithsonian.

DC Cat Count
An image from one of 1,530 motion-activated cameras deployed for the D.C. Cat Count. Credit: D.C. Cat Count

The researchers approached each of their local shelters and rescues for data, then assembled a meticulous household survey to get a handle on how many pet cats live in the city, and how many have access to the outdoors.

Finally — and most critically — they used 1,530 motion-activated cameras, which took a combined 6 million photos in parks, alleys, public spaces, streets and outdoor areas of private residences. They also developed methods for filtering out multiple images of individual cats, as well as other wildlife. And to supplement the data, team members patrolled 337 miles of paths and roads in a “transect count” to verify camera-derived data and collect additional information, like changes in the way local cats move through neighborhoods.

DC Cat Count
A cat who looks a lot like the Budster was captured in this 2019 photo from a motion-activated camera with night vision. Credit: DC Cat Count

Now that all the data’s been collected and analyzed, the D.C. Cat Count finally has a figure: There are about 200,000 cats in the city, according to the study.

Of those, 98.5 percent — or some 197,000 kitties — are either pets or are under some form of human care and protection, whether they’re just fed by people or they’re given food, outdoor shelter and TNR.

“Some people may look at our estimate and say, oh, well, you know, you’re not 100% certain that it’s exactly 200,000 cats,” Tyler Flockhart, a population ecologist who worked on the count, told DCist. “But what we can say is that we are very confident that the number of cats is about 200,000 in Washington, D.C.”

The study represents the most complete and accurate census of the local cat population in any US city to date, and the team behind it is sharing its methods so other cities can conduct their own accurate counts. (They’ll also need money: While the D.C. Cat Count relied on help from volunteers and local non-profits it was still a huge project involving a large team of pros, and it cost the city $1.5 million.)

By doing things the hard way — and the right way — D.C. is also the first American city to make truly informed choices on how to manage its feline population. No matter what happens from here, one thing’s certain — the city’s leaders will be guided by accurate data and not creating policy based on ignorance and hysteria painting cats as furry little boogeymen.

DC Cat Count
Not all the photos captured images of cats, and not all the felines were little: In this 2019 night image, a bobcat wanders in front of a trail camera. Credit: DC Cat Count

Day Four: The First of Many Fails

Buddy left the chubby house cat and the porch behind before dawn, putting some distance between him and the houses before seeking refuge in the woods where there would be no humans grabbing his tail or house cats looking at him with pity.

It was time to hunt. You know how to do this, Buddy told himself. You’re really good at it! Just stay calm and remember all the times you played hunting games with Big Buddy…

Buddy stalked the brush, listening for rodents and watching for the sudden movements of birds and squirrels. An hour passed, then two.

His tummy rumbled. He’d never thought about food so much in his life. Back home, it was just there, reliably plopped down in front of him several times a day. Chicken, salmon, beef, tuna, duck, shrimp and his beloved turkey. Pate, sauce and gravy. A different meal every time. If he didn’t like a meal he was served, he could meow in protest until he was given something different. He actually turned down perfectly good food! It seemed like a lifetime ago.

Now most of his waking moments were dedicated to food: Where to find it, how to get it and where he could eat it in peace. He thought of the dull pain of his empty stomach versus the risk of eating something he wasn’t sure of. His mouth watered at the scent of things he never would have eaten as a spoiled house cat.

There! Up ahead a squirrel crouched low in the brush, focused intently on something at the base of the tree.

Buddy slowed his gait, locking his eyes on his prey. He crouched, butt raised, waiting for just the right moment to…

Pounce!

Buddy was fast. The squirrel was faster. It sidestepped in a blur and was already scurrying up the tree when Buddy belatedly skidded to a halt and hit the trunk, getting a mouth full of bark for his efforts. Above, the squirrel chirped.

“I will have you for breakfast!” Buddy meowed. “Just you wait!”

But after circling the tree for several minutes, Buddy realized the squirrel was gone. It must have jumped to a branch from another tree.

Buddy collapsed in the brush, dejected. He was so hungry. He didn’t need to be picky: He’d eat anything without complaint at this point.

He started thinking of home, then quickly squashed the thoughts. He would not cry. He was a big boy, and big boys did not cry. Was his human out looking for him right now? What would happen if Buddy found his way home and his Big Bud wasn’t there? Would another cat take his place, eat from his bowl, knead on his blanket?

No, he told himself. Not in my house.

His ears pricked up. Beating wings. Slowing. A chirp.

Buddy bounded to his feet, ears swiveling like satellite dishes toward the direction of the sound as he padded slowly and silently.

The bird was plump and gray, and it was standing on a tree stump, picking at something between the crags of wood. Buddy had a light step — not a leaf was disturbed, not a branch snapped as he inched forward.

Just like we practiced at home, Buddy thought. Remember, you’re a great hunter! You have really big muscles! You’ve got this!

The tabby took off in a bolt of speed and energy, building momentum over two or three swift paces before he launched himself at his meal.

The bird panicked, realizing it was reacting too late. There was a shrill chirp, a beak unsuccessfully snapping at fur as Buddy scooped his prey up, and then they hit the ground hard, the birdie held tight with one paw as they tumbled in a cloud of dust, fur and feathers.

Sweet, sweet victory! Buddy thought. The thrill of the hunt!

Then he did what he always does after he wins at hunting games: He bounded up on his hind legs, jumped around happily and bobbled his prey. Except this prey saw its opportunity and took off.

buddyyawningjungle1
The mighty hunter roars!

“You’re telling me you caught the bird, then let him go?” Clyde asked, incredulous.

Their paths had crossed again at a joint known in the cat world as Chez Bacon: The bins behind a chain donut shop where cats could sometimes get lucky and find expired precooked breakfast sausages and soggy slices of bacon.

Buddy was defiant. “No! I just thought, you know, I had won and…”

“You were expecting a human to come out from behind a tree, tell you what a good boy you are and open a can for you?” Blackie meowed.

The two strays exchanged glances and laughed uproariously. Just when it felt like the laughter was dying down, one of them imitated a human — “Who’s a good boy? Does the good widdle boy want a can?” — and the howling began again. Clyde was rolling on the ground, slapping his paw against the dirt. Blackie was laughing so hard he was choking back tears.

Buddy considered asking them for help capturing the bird again, but by then he’d amplified the truth and told them he’d taken down a huge, vicious raptor that could have fed all three of them.

Clyde was still giggling when he sat up, wiped his moist eyes with the back of his paw, and coughed.

“We know a nice lady,” he said, turning to Bud. “She always feeds us when we come by.”

Buddy’s eyes lit up.

“But,” Blackie said, “a word of caution. The nice lady’s neighbor has some sort of demon dog.” He shuddered. “We’ll reconnoiter and if she’s there, we’ll lay low until the coast is clear.”

“What kind of food does the nice lady give you?” Buddy asked, his stomach churning.

“Sometimes it’s diced chicken, sometimes it’s scrambled eggs,” Clyde said.

“Love me some eggs, mmmhmmm!” Blackie said, skipping along through the trees.

“And sometimes,” Clyde continued, “it’s that nasty crunchy stuff that tastes like cardboard.”

Buddy stepped around a thorn bush. “You mean dry food? Dry food is good!”

Clyde gave him a pitying look.

“To a house cat like you, maybe,” he meowed. “But to a free-living lion of the jungle like myself, nothing tastes better than a mouse or a bird you’ve caught and killed yourself. You’ll see, kid, if you ever manage to catch something.”

They continued on in silence until Blackie stopped just short of a clearing ahead. He crouched low, scanning the area, then held up a paw.

“Back,” he whispered, retreating into the bushes in slow motion, careful not to give away their presence.

Buddy smelled the beast before he saw it. They were downwind of it, thankfully. It smelled of sweat, pee and tennis balls. And something else too. Something strange. If aggression had a scent, Buddy thought, this would be it.

A shadow moved beyond the clearing, then resolved into the pooch as it stepped out from beneath the leaf canopy. The dog was behemothic, all severe angles and stout muscle, with rivulets of mucusy saliva oozing from its open maw.

“Peggie the Pittie,” Clyde whispered, his dilated gaze never leaving the monster.

Peggie paused and lifted her snout, sniffing the air.

She smells us, Buddy thought. His fur stood up and his tail looked like a spiked club.

Sure enough, the tank of a dog fixed her gaze on the bushes where the feline trio was hiding and let loose a low growl.

One. Peggy’s front left paw hit the dirt, kicking up dust. Two. Her right paw slammed down, followed by thick strands of drool. Three. Her powerful hind legs followed, propelling her forward.

Her growl became a series of vicious barks as she picked up speed.

We’re gonna die, Buddy thought, paralyzed. We’re gonna die!